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The Effects of Gunfire

By Patrick McSherry

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The weapons used by the various army regiments and the U.S. Marine Corps represented variations in the evolution of firearms. Not everyone agreed that it was a good idea to make the leap from the 45-70 "Trapdoor" single shot rifle to the Krag Jorgensen rifle or the Lee-Metford rifle with their multi-shot magazines. for a variety of reasons.

First, some believed that the smaller calibers of the Mauser, Lee and Krag were a mistake since they did not have the "take down" power of the large caliber 45-70 "Trapdoor." They argued that, eventhough the smaller caliber weapons would wound and eventually kill the enemy, the goal was to stop their attack immediately and believed that the larger caliber weapons could do this more reliably.

Some advocates believed that using a magazine weapon was a mistake as soldiers would waste ammunition by not taking the time to aim properly, something that a single shot weapon would force them to do. The "useless" expenditure of ammunition would raise the war cost, and would create logistical issues if the soldiers expended the ammunition faster than it could be supplied. Conversely, it was argued that the smaller caliber ammunition weighed less, and therefore a soldier could carry more of it.

The smalller caliber weapons also used smokeless powder. Not only did the lack of smoke help conceal the soldier's firing location, the smokeless powder allowed for  higher muzzle velocity. This allowed for a flatter trajectory of flight of the bullet, meaning less correction was necessary when firing, and the soldiers could get a better aim. However, it was argued that the velocity was too great and the round would pass through the enemy's body without causing serious damage (i.e., it would pass through a bone creating a small hole rather than breaking the bone and stopping the individual).

Initially, it was claimed that the Spanish were using explosive ammunition. However, it was later discovered that the Mauser, Krag and Lee rounds had a tendencey to wobble at shorter ranges, meaning that when the bullet hit, it did not necessarily hit point first. When it hit at an angle at high velocity (called "keyholing"), it had an inadvertent explosive effect, creating far more injury. At longer ranges, this effect did not occur. This must be remembered when reading some of the accounts below.

The accounts below reflect the findings and conclusions of the men in the field who witnessed the effects of the gunfire from these various weapons.

Relative cartridge sizes, Spanish American War Rifles

  An image showing the cartridges of the four major longarms used during the Spanish American War.

The Accounts:

General Notes on Small Caliber Weapons ||| Mauser
Krag-Jorgensen ||| Lee-Metford ||| "Trapdoor"

General notes on the small caliber weapons (Mauser, Krag-Jorgensen and Lee Rifles):

Nicholas Senn, Chief Surgeon, U.S. Volunteers:

"No further doubt can remain in regard to the difference in the mortality of gunshot wounds inflicted with the large and small caliber bullets. The cases...appear to prove that the danger incident to gunshot wounds of the chest made by the small projectile, consists in complicating injuries involving the heart and large blood vessels, and that, in the absense of such injuries the prognosis is favorable."

Dr. Orlando Ducker, American Medical Association:

"The effectiveness of rifles of small caliber but of great initial velocity like the Krag Jorgensen, Lee-Metford or
Mauser, for instance, should be considered settled ....Another fact remains to be proven, whether the mortality is greater from the use of modern or old-style [large caliber] rifles. In the case of our own troops troops [at the Battle of Cuzco Well]  the fatality was greater to the proportion of wounded than formerly. However, that will require\ further demonstration..."

The Mauser:

Capt. H. Eugene Stafford, 71st New York Volunteer Infantry:

"No explosion is produced by the
Mauser ball...although there are reports to the contrary. It is supposed at certain distances, like the Krag-Jorgensen, to have an explosive effect. [This is because] occasionally the Mauser [bullet] seems to  turn over in its course. The effect is bad, as the bullet is long and thin. The wounds, however, are mostly clear cut. There is little shock unless the viscera or chest are struck. There is little pain as compared with the wounds from Remingtons and larger bullets. The bleeding is not so great as in the old [larger caliber] wounds...The [Mauser] bullets inflicted what might seem to be fatal wounds, yet patients are on the rapid road to recovery. Some of them entered the mouth and came out in different places behind and under the ear and through the neck without doing vital damage. One went from cheek to cheek, breaking both jawbones, but was not fatal. One man was shot just above the left eye, apparently while lying down and aiming his gun. The bullet  passed through the eye, down and out of the left shoulder. I had to cut out the eye, but the man will get well. We cannot yet tell what the poisonous effect of the bullets will be, but expect that it will be slight. Small wounds have healed with wonderful rapidity..."

N. G. Gonzales, Cuban Army:

"...Of the wounded none are in serious danger except a stevedore who accompanied the party. As he was stooping over the boat a Mauser ball passed through his shoulder, perforated his lung and passed through his head at the jaws. But the Mauser is a most humane weapon. Hit by Springfield or revolver bullets, several of the expeditionaries would have lost limbs. As it is, most of them will be ready for fighting again in a fortnight."

Grover Flint, Newspaper correspondent who traveled with the Cuban army:

"The Spanish regulars are armed with the
Mauser rifle which has great range and high penetrative powers. It was found by the Cubans that the wounds from the rifle were easily curable, the speed of the bullet is such that it will pass through the bones of the leg or arm, not breaking them, but merely leaving a small round hole...

Pvt. Charles Johnson Post, 71st New York Volunteer Infantry:

"...It was our army's first experience with the high velocity Mauser bullets that burned like a cautery as they went through and left but a tiny puncture.

The Krag-Jorgensen Rifle:

Capt. H. Eugene Stafford, 71st New York Volunteer Infantry:

"From my experience wuth the Spaniards whom I attended, I found that the Krag-Jorgensen ball had a similar effect to the Mauser. It is a little larger calibre; that was about the only difference..."

The 45-70 "Trapdoor Rifle:

From the Clay Butler Letter which mentions the "HARVARD Incident"

"...The worst thing was the fight on board. Monday night about 12 o’clock we were aroused by the noise of guns and the orders were “every man to his place.” The prisoners had made a rush, I suppose to escape. The guards fired into them, and about 50 soldiers left here to guard the stores, rushed back and opened fire. Six men were killed and about a dozen or so badly hurt. I was one of the boys detailed to go back among them after the fight and carry the dead and wounded down to the sick bay. I was barefooted,  and just think of wading into a deck all covered with blood, and men lying around shot in all sorts of places. But a fellow gets used to it, and we hustked them down as if they were so many sacks of flour. Those Springfield rifles tear awful holes in a man’s body, about the size of half a dollar..."

From a letter from Sgt/ Henry Madert, 1st District of Columbia Volunteers:

"We heard afterward that the bullets from our Springfield rifles made such large wounds at close range that the Spaniards called them light artillery guns, and said they could not fight against any such guns."

Grover Flint, Newspaper correspondent who traveled with the Cuban army:

"...the Spanish irregulars are armed with Remington and Springfield rifles. The wounds from these were more fatal [than those causes by the
Mauser] The bones, when struck, were smashed to splinters and the bullet in its egress would tear the flesh frightfully, leaving deep holes and lacerations. With the primitive hospital accommodations the Cubans managed to save a large percentage of those wounded by the Mauser rifle, but even with excellent hospital accommodations tehre would be little hope for the others..."

Bruce Payne, 1st Nebraska Volunteer Infantry, Co. D (and distant relative of Willa Cather, the author):

"The Springfield shoots a lead ball which flattens out when it strikes a man and makes a ghastly wound."


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"Effects of Rifle Balls," New York Tribune. July 25, 1898, 3. (Capt. H. Eugene Stafford).

"First at the Front," Evening Star. (Washington DC), August 11, 1898, 12. (Sgt. Henry Madert Letter)

Gonzales, N. G., In Darkest Cuba. (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1922), 81.

"Letters from Alton's Sailor Boys," Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, IL) July 20, 1898, 2.

Letters from Nicholas Senn, Chief Surgeon, U.S. Volunteers. Reprinted from the Journal of the American Medical Association (Chicago: American Medical Association, 1899 174-175.

"Modern Bullets,"New York Tribune. July 25, 1898. 3  (Dr. Orlando Ducker).

O'Connor, Margaret Anne, "The Not-So-Great War: Cather Family Letters and the Spanish American War," Cather Studies. (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), Vol. 6, 4, 6. (Bruce Payne)

Post, Charles Johnson, The Little War of Private Post. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1999), 202.

"Wounds," The Hawaiian Star. (Honolulu, HI), June 20, 1898, 4. (Grover Flint's information, paraphrased).

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